Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Alabama—forty years later

In the decades-long musical debate between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, I’ve decided at last to support Mr. Young.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Neil Young can be a little preachy at times, even presumptuous. But usually he’s on target regarding social issues, and I think this is (was) one of those good calls.

Young’s 1972 “Southern Man” was released seven years before Roy Moore decided pedophilia might be an interesting career choice. I don’t believe that Mr. Young had ever heard of Roy Moore, but he was aware of the American South which, a century after the end of the Civil War, tenaciously held on to Jim Crow and the belief that the Confederacy was poised for a comeback, this despite recent legislation empowering black citizens and rendering segregation illegal.

“Southern Man” became Mr. Young’s commentary on how the white South had built its wealth on the backs of slaves, and served as invitation to Southerners to progress into the twentieth century:

I saw cotton
and I saw black
Tall white mansions
and little shacks.
Southern man
when will you
pay them back?
I heard screamin’
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Apparently Southerners weren’t all that interested in obeying Mr. Young’s schedule, especially the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. They answered “Southern Man” (along with Young’s equally critical “Alabama”) with a rejoinder of their own, “Sweet Home, Alabama.” That was 1974, five years before Roy Moore…well, you know.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrics (written by two men from Florida and one from California) are best summarized in this passage:

Well I heard mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow

and even more telling:

In Birmingham they love the governor (boo, boo, boo)
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth

Over the weekend Trump threw his support to Roy Moore, the RNC decided to fund Moore’s Senatorial campaign, and Mitch McConnell said he wasn’t quite so sure he believed the women anymore. Over the past two weeks the news cycle has all but silenced Leigh Corfman—the fourteen year-old that Moore “liked,”—and relegated all the other accusers to footnotes. And we, as usual, are letting it happen.

Leigh Corfman was in elementary school when Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd began their debate. She probably didn’t realize the songs were about her, if she realized their existence at all. But if Roy Moore defeats Doug Jones next week—and it seems increasingly likely that he will—then the forty-five intervening years will have counted for nothing in that state; and victims like Leigh Corfman will not end the abuse but simply be a name on a list that will continue to grow.

I side with Neil Young, but Lynyrd Skynyrd gets the trophy. Award ceremony: December 12th in Montgomery. Wear your flag.

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